Can the protagonist lose his strength without losing the reader?

Thomas Myron 09/23/2015. 7 answers, 400 views
creative-writing plot character-development

In studying writing, I've learned that you need to give your protagonist something - usually a quality - that makes the reader want him to win. Without this quality, the reader doesn't care what happens to the protagonist, or simply doesn't care for him, period. I call this quality the protagonist's strength.

Here's the situation: I'm currently writing a book about a hero who starts out full of perseverance. He believes that they can fight against the enemies arrayed against them, and giving up is furthest from his mind. Throughout the course of the novel, the hero receives a series of emotional and psycological blows designed to make him doubt whether this is true. These blows culminate in one final blow, which proves to be too much. The hero gives up and essentially decides that the situation is hopeless.

Do note that after that point, the hero then goes through a series of events that bolster his perseverance, until the climax arrives, and his doubts are shoved aside, his resolve emerging stronger than ever.

Question: The hero's strength in this book is his perseverance: the fact that he doesn't give up. How can I essentially have him lose his strength, the thing that makes the reader want him to win, half way through the book, and still keep the reader?

Notes: Obviously having the hero lose his strength isn't terribly advisable, so I have duly altered the way things happened in the book. I thought this question was likely to help other writers though, so I posted it.

7 Answers

Chris Sunami 09/24/2015.

Part of why we read fiction is to learn something by going through an experience with the character --that's what makes identifying with the character important. For someone to lose what they and others have always felt is their core strength is a real experience, and one that could be compelling to go through in fiction --if it resolves in a way that feels real, not fake.

For that reason, I disagree with your comment that it is not advisable. If the overall message of your book is "just give up," I'd personally find that off-putting. But if the lesson is "sometimes we try so hard that we get in our own ways," that's something I could find valuable as realized in a fictional context.

(Possible other lessons: we all need help sometimes, no one makes it entirely on his/her own, or even when you're at your personal lowest, all hope is not gone)

Fellow Writer 09/24/2015.

Show the character's Strength (perseverance) being driven by his Weakness (ego, for example). Over time, our vices erode our strengths. When your character gives up (forfeiting his Strength), it is because his Weakness (again, ego, for example) has taken blows that it cannot withstand. While admiring his perseverance (as well as his other fantastic characteristics), the reader knows that his Weakness will be his downfall and expects it. If written well, the reader will also know that this guy could be truly heroic if he would just acknowledge and deal with his Weakness, and we root for this breaking of people we admire, because we know they will be even better for it.

As the story proceeds, show glimpses of him starting to get it. Of course, he doesn't until it's almost too late.

There should be a single scene, when he gives up, in which he reflects on who he truly is and what he truly values. (Avoid whole scenes of self-loathing. Nobody likes to read that.) At his core, he is a hero, and he knows that people depend on him. He can know longer fight for a victory simply to add to his scorecard. He will fight with all of his grit for the lives of the people around him, regardless of victory. He becomes the Hero that the crisis needs.

Now go write it!

Cashmerella 09/24/2015.

Oh, I think it's quite common in fiction, actually; a hero you root for giving up before finding their passion again. I think that it's usually expected that the hero will pull through, so I personally assume that the hero will regain their strength and in fact it makes me keep reading, eagerly awaiting them to overcome their struggle. If you worry some readers might not assume that, perhaps you can foreshadow that things will get better. Or, even better, make sure you go a good ways into the story beforehand, so that they will grow attached enough to the characters and story to see them through to the end. Anyways, I think struggles make heroes more relatable and human and the bigger the struggle the more relatable they are, so I think it actually sounds like a great idea to me, as long as it isn't done in the same way as the last Batman movie where it got boring for quite awhile. They dragged it on too long and didn't have much happen while the hero was on hiatus. That really bugged me, so I'd avoid that in particular; if the hero has a long hiatus from their journey or whatever, make sure something interesting is still happening. Anyways, I think this struggle is going to be a great and relatable way to build your character, and when they emerge again the reader will root for them even more. Good luck on writing them!

Nathock 10/15/2015.

In all honesty, I think you'd lose your readers faster if you had you character go through a ringer and not be discouraged broken down in some way. Heroes who never fluctuate on their view or outlook become dull and boring after a while.

Further I would say that you absolutely can have a character lose all hope, it's not uncommon (Vic from Joe Hill's NOS4A2 and Reek/Theon Greyjoy from George RR Matin's Song of Ice and Fire series come to mind). Just make sure than when you reach the point where the main character regains their strength and vigor, your readers are revitalized right along with him/her.

And if you get the feeling that your character becomes simply to far gone and can no longer move the story along, you could show what effects his complacence has on the world around him, or focus on who's around to witness the downslide.

Hope this helps.

Mudly 10/15/2015.

You can, and it has been done several times! Herman Melville's Pierre comes to mind as a prime example of a protagonist who loses his edge. Arguably, we could also consider The Picture of Dorian Gray's eponymous hero, as well as 1984's Winston as being protagonists who lost their strengths.

You wrote the following:

Do note that after that point, the hero then goes through a series of events that bolster his perseverance, until the climax arrives, and his doubts are shoved aside, his resolve emerging stronger than ever.

This is certainly possible. Demetri Karamazov springs immediately to mind as a protagonist who functions in this manner. In fact, this is a general tendency of many a good protagonist; otherwise, you'd have a Mary Sue stomping about your pages, impervious to both life and death, and characters that neither grow nor learn.

As for the question at hand - how do you make this an enjoyable read - a good story is carried by not only its main thread, but also by spinning into it other subplots, small gains, large losses, etc., to keep the momentum of the story going forward until the climax. A well-told, convincing story will keep an audience captive better than one whose protagonist never falters.

h22 04/11/2018.

"Recovering from major loss" is a very common plot, covered by many books and movies. It is very common for the protagonist to lose some of ones powers and capabilities and to proceed with limited resources, probably because in real life this is also usual. The loss may be loss of magical power (Ghibli Kikki, Disney Hercules), permanent technical problem (engine failing in Disney Planes second part, captain Nemo Nautilus trapped in the island), emigration (Western stories), weakness due depression (Beauty and the Beast, the Beast left alone), battles lost (Start Wars, Pacific Rim), etc, etc. Very often this is an initial event and all writing is about finding the ways out, but for Kikki, Hercules this happens in the middle of the plot and in some other cases the character used to be stronger in the previous books or movies of the sequel.

Most often the protagonist stays self-disciplined and keeps struggling, but not always. The Beast, or Luke in "The last Jedi", for instance, just yield completely, Hercules does not actually expect to win and in "Planes 2" the protagonist sets up the airport on fire - nothing constructive. The reader forgives if the character later recovers after some success.

Bailey 04/14/2018.

Four words:

Double-subverted False Protagonist

Edit: Sorry if my answer was too short, I was trying to invoke Occam's Razor. I was afraid that by giving an example for how to use it, I would inadvertently affect their decision-making, and stop them from being able to think of someway else to use it. The link is just for the definition though.

As for the question, I was thinking about swapping the POV between two people throughout the story, leaving the reader unsure as to who the hero was. But my original answer can be taken a different direction, that's just how I would use it.

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